Josiah McElheny: The Last Scattering Surface

accent gallery
May 19, 2007 - August 27, 2007

In the exhibition The Last Scattering Surface, artist Josiah McElheny continues his investigation of the history and implications of twentieth-century modernism through a series of new works that revolve around the unusual intersection of theoretical cosmology and industrial design.

Since 2004, McElheny has collaborated with University of Ohio cosmology professor David Weinberg on the conceptual realization of a series of sculptures that depict the theory of the Big Bang with the language of mid-1960s industrial design. This unexpected pairing of high modernist thought finds its origins in 1965, the year the Big Bang was first confirmed by physical evidence and when the Viennese firm Lobmeyr and Co. were commissioned to design a chandelier with a “galactic appearance” for New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. The serendipity of these two events inspired McElheny to create this new series of scientifically accurate, precisely manufactured sculptures.

Also on view is his first film, Conceptual Drawings for a Chandelier, 1965, which was shot in part on location at the Metropolitan Opera House, as well as a series of related photographs and digital images.

The Last Scattering Surface, the title of his ten-foot spherical sculpture of gleaming metal and glass that floats just inches from the floor, refers to both the history of modernism and the science of the Big Bang. The mid-1960s is the moment when the limitations of modernist thought, with its propensity to narrate history as a single story about progress, became extremely clear. After modernism’s heyday there was a “scattering” of histories, and narratives about culture began to be spoken from many viewpoints.

But the poetry of the title comes directly from the scientific concepts the sculpture represents. The “last scattering surface” is the scientific term used to describe the moment when the universe transitioned from opaque to transparent, when the light particles that filled the hot early cosmos decoupled from normal matter and began to travel freely through space. Subtle variations in the intensity of this light were the result of fluctuations in temperature and density; these seeds of variation have grown by gravity into the galaxies, stars, and planets that fill the universe today.

These works describe the process by which early structures determine the forms that surround us, but how they also carry with them the seeds of explosive change: the drive to uniformity in the twentieth-century eventually undone by the pluralism of post-modernity, the universe made possible by inconsistency at its start.

The Last Scattering Surface (detail)
Handblown glass, chrome plated aluminum, rigging, electric lighting
image courtesy of Donald Young Gallery